Bruno Cordati 1890 - 1979

Bruno Cordati was born in Barga, (in Piazza Angelio No 17) on February 9th, 1890. His father, Luigi, was a mason, his mother, Adele, a housewife. The modest economic conditions of his family meant that he could only go to school until he was twelve, from then on he virtually educated himself.

A precocious aptitude for drawing led him to his first experiments with crayons. When still a child he met a sign-painter, a certain Mr. Norfini, and went around the countryside, following and working with him. Norfini became a dear friend, who Bruno would never forget. "He taught me the trade" as he was to say later. In his adolescence, Giovanni Pascoli engaged him to fresco a symbolic coat of arms on one of the walls of his garden, in Castelvecchio: Cordati was thus able to come close to the poet. Pascoli was an important acquaintance, who was not alien to his mental disposition and Cordati's choice of isolation of the last years of his life parallels to some extent Pascoli's. Unfortunately the work he did for Pascoli was damaged by an earthquake and was then badly restored.

Working as a decorator he earned enough money to prepare himself privately for the entrance examination to a special course on painting at the Art Institute "A. Passaglia" in Lucca, run by Alceste Campriani. Class registers show his enrolment in the academic year 1914/1915. But he only attended the school for a few months. After having failed the qualifying examination for teaching, because of the oral test on descriptive geometry, on May 15th, 1915, he left for the front, where he remained till the end of the war.

He rarely spoke of his four years in the trenches on the border between Italy and Slovenia, marked by memories of the rain, the mud, fear and the daily struggle with death. He was awarded a medal for military valour and came back with an oil painting Soldati al fronte (Soldiers at the front), which is printed in the catalogues of the exhibition in Palazzo Strozzi (Florence 1987) and Palazzo Lanfranchi (Pisa-1988). But above all he came back with a purpose: he decided to devote himself completely to painting.

In the following years, his painting became more intense, opening out to the contemporary cultural debate, first towards a reformed cézannism, then towards the Novecento.

In 1932, an oil-painting with a posthumous title In soggettiva (where we see the artist's hands painting a smaller version of the painting itself) came to the attention of Filippo Marinetti, who praised his inventive iconography and his playing with perspective. Marinetti noted Cordati's search which drew together its neo-futurist programme.

In this period he also began to exhibit his pictures, winning over his moody character. The first exhibition appears to have been in Lucca in 1921. About thirty pictures were on show (oil-paintings and pastels). A local Barga newspaper predicted "a promising future" for Cordati, because "he is young, has great merits and above all he wants to work".

We know from the same source that he met not only the public's favour but also that of several reviewers; Giovanni Rosati, a member of Parliament and under- secretary of the Belle Arti, bought a pastel, Testa di bimbo (Child's head), for the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome.

The way was open. In August of the following year, he exhibited in Bagni di Lucca; in 1923 in Lucca (First Regional Exhibition of Art and Handicrafts, organized by "Ars Lucensis"). Emilio Pasquini, a classical scholar, reviewed his pictures in the magazine Sagittario: "he knows the long, silent studies of his meditative and snug Barga". Pasquini wrote of the majority of paintings as having childish subject, a vein which was to remain for a long time in Cordati's output. A self portrait was also mentioned, the first of a long series, but the only one which hangs in a public palace, bought by the local council of Lucca, and in 1926 was in the Villa Guinigi Museum.

The exhibitions in Lucca, and subsequent purchases, gave him a good name. He sold many of pictures and was given commissions; this improved his economic situation and was quite important, as in 1922 he married Clotilde Costi and then they had two daughters, Bruna and Luigia.

Exhibitions were more and more frequent (see list below), from 1925 to 1930 he took part in numerous collective exhibitions; of these the most significant being the Biennale in Venice in 1928.

By the end of the twenties Cordati's pictures had been on show in the most important Tuscan and Italian art exhibitions, his work sold well and even the French reviews: "La Revue Moderne" and "La Revue du Vrai et du Beau" heralded him as a new talent.

But Barga remained his base; he only moved away for brief periods, induced by his family duties and by the advice of a painter friend, Adolfo Balduini, who exhibited with him.

It was the right moment for personal exhibitions; the most important was in Lucca, in 1930, at the "Circolo Lucchese". The 21 works got excellent reviews in the Popolo Toscano and the Giornale d'Italia (two contemporary magazines). Rino Carassiti saw in them "something lofty, strong, real, studied, powerful, which shows his pictures are some steps higher than the normal level of painting". Luigi Gualtiero admired "his exquisite artist's soul. and an enviable technical endowment"; but he exhorted Cordati "to come out of Lucca's environment, to show, in some big city, preferably Rome, his art. It will be advantageous for him and an honour for Lucca". Cordati didn't follow this advice and his exhibitions were concentrated in Tuscany, with the exception of one in La Spezia (Liguria).

In 1931 Cordati organized an exhibition with Umberto Maestrucci and Corrado Michelozzi in the rooms of the Bottega d'Arte. Rino Carassiti seized the opportunity to write in the catalogue a portrait of Cordati, who was now forty: "he has an open face, where you see every emotion, but you can't read, as you think, his thoughts. His broad forehead appears to you framed by white hair, which contrasts with his young appearance. You meet a firm figure, he is a man of few gestures and words; he's not scabrous, but rough".

The most complete portrait of Cordati, man and artist, was written by Ettore Cozzani in "Eroica" in 1932. Twelve works were published together with the text, including Sera barghigiana (Evening in Barga), ll nipotino (The grandchild), Attesa (Wait), Nubi (Clouds), and Riposo (Rest).

These were the most successful years for critical recognition and economic rewards. He received public commissions too: Pascoli's portrait for the local council of Barga (the picture still hangs in the town hall); the temper ornament in the Casa del Mutilato (Cripple's House) in Piazza San Michele (Lucca); Antonio Mazzarosa De Vincenti's portrait, a well known person in Lucca, for the Cassa di Risparmio (an important bank of the same town).Cordati had thus become a well-known painter, but he began to teach regularly which took him away from Tuscany.

In 1934 he still resided in Barga (an exhibition in Lucca - Circolo Centro - and a participation in the organizing committee of the First Summer Exhibition in Viareggio - Kursaal). The year after he was in Gorizia; there is a drawing he did there, dated 3rd February 1935, but above all there are the works he showed in the Exhibition of Art and Handicraft (Barga, August 1935): "numerous landscapes made recently in the places of the war, Montesanto, Sabotino, il Calvario". In 1936 he was back in Gorizia.

In 1937 he took part in the 4th Exhibition of Art in Lucca. However the Ministry of Education ordered him to leave Italy and he was entrusted to teach the history of art and drawing in Italian foreign secondary schools; he was in Budapest (1937-1938), Paris (1938- 1939) and Bulgaria (1939-1943).

He and his family were to remember this period abroad as one of the happiest and most intense in his life. He taught, studied, visited art-galleries and museums, and painted. In Bulgaria, especially, where the fascination of Slavonic places and customs led him to widen his thematic repertory and to renew the range of his colours, which were then particularly rich and bright. Now in Palazzo Cordati there is a room devoted to this period: the Bulgarian room.

Unfortunately this period passed only too quickly and the war brought him back to Tuscany, and to his studio in Via di Mezzo, Barga. Even though he was exempted from military service and he followed the events only as a civilian, the war marked him heavily. The alarms, the bombings, the ruins and in the end the poverty of the post-war period were for him more shocking than the experiences he had had in the trenches as a young man.

From then on Cordati's pictures became sombre again, and his creative rhythm slowed down. He carried on painting, but often destroyed his works or changed them completely. He would paint irregularly, beginning a picture, then leaving it only to pick it up later and rework it several times; a method which was to become the habit of his last years.

In 1946 when asked to explain the meaning of what he was searching for he replied: "every picture represents a starting-point for me, or, if you like this image, the rung of a ladder; every work is an experiment, an attempt to go beyond". This way of conceiving art, with its strongly experimental sense, corresponded to his need to leave the public scene and official contests. In 1947 he exhibited for the last time and retired to the seclusion of Barga.

He taught for some time at a teacher training school; in the end, enjoying the benefit of his pension, he shut himself into the big rooms of Palazzo Cordati, which he had rented before the war and which he bought at the end of the sixties. Here he could devote himself to his favourite activities. He read and re-read the classics, the Divina Commedia and Orlando Furioso, in particular, but Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Makarenko too, along with Flaubert, Maupassant, Joyce, Musil, Proust. He listened to music; he wrote, among other things, a portrait for the review "Ponte" of the painter Alberto Magri, a friend and a fellow-citizen, but above all he painted ceaselessly.

Every distraction, even the least interference in his work was intolerable for him. To everybody, friends and daughters alike, he said the same thing: no more exhibitions, no more long absences from his village and his house, never again any "unnecessary stress". He accepted his last commission in 1962: a portrait of Giovanni Carignani for the picture-gallery of the Cassa di Risparmio of Lucca. But it was an exception: he painted only for himself and for his own comfort.

The story of his last thirty years revolves around his works: innumerable pictures accumulated in his studio, day after day. They had little thematic range and followed same line of research: he progressively left the figure to reach the informal. He didn't worry about giving them a title or putting them in order; on the contrary, he actually refused to do it. His pictures were on the same standing as living things for him and therefore held to no formula or label.

What was important was the act of painting itself, the daily tribulation which gives a meaning to life, or rather is life itself. He was sustained by this faith and continued to work till the end, with an alacrity more typical of youth. Still working and very active, he was suddenly struck by a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of ninety.

He died in Barga hospital, a few day after being admitted, on the 26th December 1979.

Personal and collective exhibition

  • 1921 Pacini Institute, Lucca
  • 1922 Permanent Exhibition, Bagni di Lucca
  • 1923 First Regional artistic exhibition, Casino dei Nobili, Lucca
  • 1925 First artistic exhibition, Barga
  • 1926 IV Spring Exhibition, Livorno
  • 1927 XCIII Esposizione Amatori e Cultori delle Belle Arti
  • 1928 II Art Exhibition, Fiume
  • 1928 XVI International Art Exhibition, Venice
  • 1929 Palazzo Ducale, Lucca
  • 1930 IV Regional Tuscan Art Exhibition, Florence
  • 1930 Personal Exhibition, Circolo Lucchese, Lucca
  • 1931 II Provincial Exhibition of Art, Lucca
  • 1931 Personal Exhibition, Bottega d'Arte, Livorno
  • 1931 Personal Exhibition, Barga
  • 1931 Personal Exhibition, Casa d'Arte, La Spezia
  • 1932 Personal Exhibition, Circolo Lucchese, Lucca
  • 1932 Personal Exhibition, Kursaal, Viareggio
  • 1934 Personal Exhibition, Circolo Centro, Viareggio
  • 1934 I Summer Exhibition, Kursaal, Viareggio
  • 1935 Art exhibition, Barga
  • 1937 IV Art Exhibition, Lucca
  • 1945 Provincial Art Exhibition, Lucca
  • 1946 II Provincial Art Exhibition, Lucca
  • 1947 Art Exhibition, Barga
  • 1978 Art in Lucca 1900-1945, Palazzo Mansi, Lucca
  • 1980 Retrospective Exhibition, Barga
  • 1985 Anthological Exhibition, Barga
  • 1986 Anthological Exhibition, La Nuova Strozzina (Palazzo Strozzi), Florence
  • 1988 Anthological Exhibition, Palazzo Lanfranchi, Pisa
  • 1990 Anthological Exhibition, Sophia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  • 1993 Anthological Exhibition, Fontana del Delfino Gallery, Bergamo
  • Since 1994 Permanent Exhibition, Palazzo Cordati, Barga.


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